Bridal fashions roar with ‘20s touches

Posted: May 31, 2012

Modern-day wedding gowns are flush with vintage touches.

Simple sheaths are embellished with lace overlays. Greek goddess gowns have drop waists, replete with pleats.

Straight gowns boast ruffled hemlines, and tan, tea-length cocktail dresses are making "I do" debuts.

What more proof do you need that bridal garb is going Gatsby?

"It’s romantic. It’s feminine. It’s simple," said Catalina Maddox-Wagers, fashion director at Conshohocken-based David’s Bridal. "The 1920s are so big that what’s happening in bridal fashion is actually preempting the movie." She’s referring to the anticipated December release of the latest film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel.

In the ’20s, women’s everyday looks moved away from restrictive corsets, embracing straighter silhouettes, and eveningwear was tasseled, beaded, and lavish. Business tycoons like the Rockefellers were taking chances in postwar ventures that would make them filthy rich. They partied hard. Times were simpler, but exciting. We were on the precipice of change, much like now. No wonder Hollywood has picked up on the energy.

Besides the forthcoming Great Gatsby, PBS’s period drama Downton Abbey and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire are other pop-culture inspirations for bridal’s embrace of the flapper. And movie stars are taking the look and feel of the era beyond the silver screen into their own enchanted weddings.

Actress Amy Smart’s fringed Carolina Herrera roared with ’20s style at her September nuptials. And the most recent high-profile nod to the opulent decade was the dress selection of Mark Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, who this month wore a body-skimming gown with an illusion jeweled neckline and sheer back.

"That was such a beautiful throwback," Maddox-Wagers said. "It reminded me of something you would pull out of your grandmother’s trunk." And she means that in a good way.

After years of strapless and exposed, the most distinguished dress detail from the Jazz Age is coverage, said Michael Shettel, vice president of design at Fort Washington-based Alfred Angelo — especially sleeves, which Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, donned in an early-’30s-style Alexander McQueen gown last year.

"We haven’t seen sleeves in bridal in a long, long time," said Shettel. Once Middleton resurrected the look, celebrities such as Ivanka Trump (in Vera Wang) and Lauren Bush (in Ralph Lauren) brought more attention to it.

"It was evolutionary and revolutionary at the same time," Shettel said.

But this covered-up trend has moved beyond sleeves. In fact, the turn away from all things strapless has us embracing high necklines and yoke details.

Dainty, dainty, dainty.

And then there’s the shrug. You’re thinking fur? The real fashion is in feathers. Those mini capes — what Shettel calls a "pretty big deal right now" — add a dose of sultry to the vintage moment, especially when worn over a body-skimming mermaid gown.

Yet in a sea of 1920s looks, there’s another silhouette that’s holding its own — the 1950s-style fit-and-flare, tight from the torso to the tush and reminiscent of curvy Jessica Rabbit-wear. We can thank Kim Kardashian for this; she wore a Chantilly lace Vera Wang — the second of three gowns for the reality star — to her bogus wedding last August.

"It gives today’s brides an extra element of sexiness," said Frannie Erace, owner of Unveiled Philadelphia in Washington Square.

During the golden, post-World War I era, brides wore white and ecru, but they mixed in pale shades with accessories, headpieces, even shoes, Maddox-Wagers said. So when actress Reese Witherspoon opted for a pale pink Monique Lhuillier for her March 2011 wedding, that trend took off too.

"And it’s not just ivory and pink nude blushes," said Nicole Sewall, merchandise manager at BHLDN (as in beholden), Anthropologie’s online bridal boutique that carries gowns exclusively by high-end designers such as Tracy Reese and James Coviello. "We are seeing lots of peaches and icy blues. Brides are using color to make their pieces unique to them."

That means golden touches too, à la the champagne threads stitched throughout the Stella McCartney gown that model Kate Moss wore for her July 2011 wedding. Frothy, asymmetrical gowns fashioned from gauzy tulle and chiffon to look like rows of blooming flowers or cresting waves also achieve that chic, yet earthy look — a bit like a woodland princess.

"When you marry the elements of the outdoors on a gown, you get a softer look, but extra added drama," said Maddox-Wagers. She predicts the "drama skirt" will become the strongest trend as the 2013 bridal season gets under way.

So say goodbye to strapless stark whites of princesses past. Today’s fairy tale reads more like the Snow White in ABC’s Once Upon a Time than the perfectly put-together Disney version.

"What a bride chooses on her wedding day is more and more of a reflection of her own tastes," said Sewall. "These days she no longer has to settle for a white ball gown because that’s what she’s been told she should wear."

Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or, or on Twitter @ewellingtonphl. Read her blog, "Mirror Image," at

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